Posted June 20th 2018 at 8:00 am by
in Seeing from the Field

The Power of Collaboration: A Discussion with Jennifer Rowe

This series, Seeing from the Field, is based on interviews conducted with community development practitioners about the values, goals, and premises underlying their work as well as the contours and directions of their ongoing practice. Conducted by graduate students of urban planning, public health, international affairs, and education programs in the Boston area as part of Dr. Lily Song’s Spring 2018 course, “Community Development: Past, Present, and Future,” at the Harvard Graduate School, the interviews highlight the possibilities and dilemmas of operationalizing theories of change in set institutional, spatial, and cultural contexts that are complex, contentious, and shifting.

Jennifer Rowe pushes for collaboration, local knowledge, and better public engagement as one of 60 Central Transportation Planning Staff (CTPS) at the Boston Region Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO). After graduating with a degree in urban and regional planning from Cornell University, she was hired as a public participation planner at the MPO and now serves as the public participation manager. Jen has been using her skills from past academic, professional, and volunteer experiences to contribute to the MPO and promote improved transportation processes and outcomes in the Boston region.

Jennifer Rowe

Jennifer Rowe holding office hours. 

Jen initially studied environmental science and entered the planning world through her interest in citizen science and her desire to make tangible change. After graduate school, she worked at a participatory, design-build organization in Croatia before joining the MPO, and she is currently pursuing certification through the American Institute of Certified Planners. Jen sees her main role at the MPO as helping people shape transportation systems. She aims to provide the public with a high-level look at the MPO’s decisions, deadlines, and constraints and then offer opportunities for input.

At the MPO, Jen provides office hours in which people can call her or drop in to speak about the MPO’s work. She reflects: “How can we best structure opportunities for people to weigh in given limitations that we have?” In what she calls a “complex ecosystem” of transportation plans and agencies, many of the comments fielded in these office hours are actually about the work of other agencies such as the Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT), Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA), or Metropolitan Area Planning Council (MAPC).

Jen talks about the importance of listening to people who are frustrated with transportation—even if it is in the context of a project not under the MPO’s particular jurisdiction—but also connecting those people to other organizations to help build a network of relationships between individuals and organizations. Jen emphasizes the significance of building relationships from within her organization through efforts to bridge the perceived divide between MPO staff working in public participation and staff working in data-driven positions and transportation engineering. She hopes to increase the desire of her colleagues in other departments to have public engagement components to their work.

The role of communicating in plain language and clearly explaining the MPO is evident in the thoughtfulness with which Jen relates each aspect of the MPO’s work, from the legacy of highway expansion in the 1960s that divided communities of color and low-income communities to the Melnea Cass Boulevard project today. Jen’s approachability and humility, characteristics critical for success in this role, have been developed through a range of past experiences.  

Valuing Collaboration, Tacit Knowledge, and Optimism

Several experiences have been critical in shaping Jen’s outlook on planning, from her former professional experience at the Boston Cyclists’ Union to her planning and landscape studies at Cornell. From our conversation, Jen both implies and explicitly identifies a few of her core values derived from these experiences, which culminate in an approach that seems welcoming, unpretentious, collaborative, and thorough.

Jennifer Rowe

Jennifer holding office hours. 

First, Jen mentions the need to listen to all people, not just those with the power, time, energy, or capacity to seek out planners. In her work, she attempts to counteract the legacy of undervalued local expertise: if people are not involved, she mentions, this either wastes time in the long run or leads to mistakes. She relates the need for “stepping against the tide” of what is happening and creating an outlet for alternative ideas since “transportation has a huge effect on neighborhoods and their ability to build community.”

Jennifer Rowe

Jennifer holding office hours. 

Collaboration is something Jen refers to multiple times throughout our discussion. “While my work now can feel less tangible than designing a landscape or roadway, I find joy when I get to meet with someone face to face and discover points of collaboration or areas where we can connect the dots. I see tangibility in relationships and am glad that I can dispel confusion and help people have a say and advance their interests.”

Systems-level thinking is something Jen brings to her work, and political constraints reinforce the importance of collaboration in this field since different groups face different possibilities and limitations. She gives an example of an advocacy group that might have a comparative advantage of information sharing over the MPO, which has many levels of review for work products and heightened political sensitivities. Patience is a huge asset in this work, and Jen’s commitment to building sustainable relationships embodies the long-term horizon with which she approaches planning and public engagement.

Jen also prioritizes outcomes in her work and mentions that she is willing to trade always being liked by her co-workers in order to achieve tangible results. Still, the contradictory nature of certain aspects of this work is evident, as she mentions that it can be difficult sometimes to have allegiance to both the MPO and also the public, who can have different priorities. Despite this, Jen is clearly an optimist, and she is constantly looking for glimpses of hope in her work.

“There are microcosms of efforts that are not entirely transactional,” Jen says. “While a lot of what we do seems incremental, it is also showing an alternative to how people relate to one another and their communities. It might not be right now. It might not be us. It might not be in our lifetime, but those other modes can become more dominant. Sometimes it’s the right time and the right moment for something to take hold in a stronger way. That moment could happen and if there aren’t people already who know how to build relationships and build movements or sustain them, those moments can be lost.”

Transcending Constraints

Jen seems to be someone who does not draw a line between her personal and professional work. Outside of the MPO, she contributes her time to two initiatives in her neighborhood in Dorchester: Movimiento Cosecha, an organization campaigning for dignity, respect, and permanent protection for immigrants; and a group at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Uphams Corner. Jen is working with the latter group on efforts to mitigate gentrification in Uphams Corner, which the Imagine Boston 2030 plan designates as an arts innovation district. The group received a grant to hire a local producer to create a video and engage residents in a listening project with the goal to have productive discussions about housing affordability and gun violence. Jen talks with enthusiasm about the ability to offer stipends for participation at these meetings, contrasting this nimbleness with the federal funding restrictions of the MPO.

While every organization faces its own set of constraints, Jen strives to make use of organizational strengths to pursue incremental improvements. She has pushed to improve external communications products and to hire a full-time communications staff member. Jen has also advocated for and received a bigger budget for public participation efforts, among other successes.

Jen’s Future Work

Jennifer Rowe

Headshot of Jennifer Rowe. Credit: Beatrice Jin

Jen demonstrates in her professional work and beyond that disruption can be humble and still effective. Listening is paramount in planning, and change comes from both improving an organization’s working relationships with other organizations and also improving interpersonal dynamics within a particular workplace. At the same time, while it is easy to get lost in the pettiness of organizational power dynamics or broader funding constraints, the ability to transcend this and relate to other people’s values is key.

For Jen, change lies in building relationships with people and dispelling confusion. Silos aren’t constraints but rather opportunities to overcome, and complaints aren’t criticism but rather a chance to understand people’s deeper concerns, inform them of opportunities, and connect them with resources. And, as Jen exemplifies, optimism is key for being an effective planner or community development practitioner. Jen sees opportunities in the everyday—such as contributing to the efforts of a church group in her neighborhood—but still takes the time to listen and recognize she is not always the expert.

“I try to see the world as it is and not be embittered by how it is not what I want it to be. It is wrong-headed to think that one has the right way or that the world should be different than it is. So the best we can do is what is what’s right in each moment.  I’ll never know all the answers but I can know what feels right and does not feel right and learn to trust my gut.”

Before starting her master’s degree in urban planning at the Graduate School of Design, Megan Slavish worked at an organization promoting community-driven development in Uganda and throughout East Africa. More of her writing, including an editorial she wrote in her hometown newspaper about poverty and choices, can be found here.

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